Future of Columbia theater cloudy

negotiations continue with landlord

Community could be left with one movie house

September 13, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Columbia is perilously close to having just one movie theater instead of the three film houses it once enjoyed.

The 15-year-old Loews Palace 9 is on the verge of closing while wreckers demolish the former General Cinema III building, the planned town's original movie house that opened in Town Center more than 30 years ago. It closed in October last year.

That would leave only the Snowden Square 14 megaplex in east Columbia.

The combination of a national glut of movie screens, the soft economy and the opening of stadium-style, multiscreen cinemas in east Columbia and at Arundel Mills appear to be the culprits, though the Rouse Co. plans to build a 10-screen complex near The Mall at Columbia -- someday.

"We are very dismayed at the very few options that are available if you want to go to a movie," said Kathleen Nolan of Glenelg.

Nolan's husband refuses to patronize the new theaters, she said, after experiencing frustrating parking delays, long ticket lines and sold-out shows. They drive to Baltimore occasionally to have dinner and go to the Charles -- a renovated five-screen art film house.

Howard County issued a demolition permit Aug. 30 for Columbia's original movie building on Sterrett Place, officials said. Work on the demolition is under way, but it's unclear what will rise on the Rouse-owned site. Just a few feet away, a nine-story office building is nearing completion where a long-closed Rusty Scupper restaurant once stood overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi.

The Palace 9, a nine-screen theater that opened in 1986 off Route 108, was at one time slated to close Sept. 3. But it remains open subject to negotiations with the Towson landlord, Continental Realty, Loews theater officials said.

Although Continental Vice President J.M. Schapiro declined to comment, Bob Jones, Loews' manager for the Washington region, said the chain intends to close the lightly attended Palace 9. But, he added, "that's an ongoing negotiation with the landlord. It's a moving target."

The chain stopped listing movies for the Palace 9 in The Sun movie listings, said Mark Grayson, a newspaper advertising official. The listings resumed this week, he said, after the chain decided to remain open for the time being.

"The Palace is not a nice theater anymore. By industry standards, it's obsolete, and Muvico [24 screens at Arundel Mills] didn't help," said Scott Cohen, president of the Maryland chapter of the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. has closed 146 theaters in the past two years. The company was purchased by Onex Corp. after filing for bankruptcy protection in February.

"Ultimately everyone, including the current operator, believes that facility [Palace 9] will close," said Chris Carlaw, a Rouse Co. official who is trying to find a developer to build a multiscreen theater behind Nordstrom's at the Columbia mall.

"We're going to continue to be patient," Carlaw said. "It may take another year for the theater industry to sort out who will survive. Most are unable to borrow money to build a new theater."

Columbia's movie metamorphosis began in December 1997 when the Snowden Square 14 megaplex, owned by United Artists, opened behind the Snowden Square shopping center.

Next, the town's original theater, the three-screened General Cinema, converted into an arts film house but then closed suddenly in October.

Arundel Mills, a huge new shopping center in Anne Arundel County a few minutes east of Howard County along Route 100, added to Palace 9's troubles late last year by opening 24 screens. Before that, Howard County allowed the rezoning of the land under Palace 9 to allow for other commercial uses at the site, in case the theater closed.

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